40 YEARS IN THE GAME

Tommy Chong on Cannabis and Entertainment

by Danielle Guercio

You can try all you want to go viral in today’s fame game, but even millions of eyeballs can’t keep you relevant for over 40 years like actor, director and icon Tommy Chong. With the upcoming 40th anniversary of Up In Smoke swiftly approaching, and California cannabis in its first year of legal recreational operation, the Grammy Museum decided to display a retrospective of this groundbreaking film and the men who created it.

People don’t often realize that Chong is a Grammy winner, since we think of comedy expressed on film and TV, filed under different award umbrellas, but his original partnership with Cheech Marin was a stand-up act. We didn’t have as many media channels in the 1970s as we do today, but recording was one of the most flexible acts when it came to freedom of content. We may not notice the stand-up comedy Grammy category, but it’s there nonetheless, awarding comedians every year.

The Emerald Magazine asked Chong about everything from early stand-up culture to current affairs, but his entertainment insight is invaluable, considering he’s had such a long and fruitful career.

After being prosecuted in 2003 and serving time, probation stopped Chong from working on projects related to cannabis temporarily, but ultimately his career and advocacy received a boost. About this left-field legal trouble Chong muses, “I mean, how could they possibly want to arrest you for selling a bong? I couldn’t figure it out.”

Chong continues, hinting that they may have taken inspiration for the case from one of his comedies where cannabis was hidden in the paraphernalia: “In fact, I did a movie with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre that was called Car Wash, and in that movie I was selling bongs, and the weed [inside] was free.”

It’s doubtful an actor would recreate the slapstick scheme from their own film, so why the federal government assumed this was the case and went after a beloved movie star is still a mystery shrouded in the fog of prohibition.

Back before he became one of the faces of cannabis, Tommy Chong and partner Cheech Marin were playing small black-owned jazz clubs and crashing disco parties, developing their material. The aftermath of their first pot bit—the lowrider and the hitchhiker who would become Cheech and Chong—has stuck with them for 40 years, “When we did that bit, the club really went crazy. Everybody went nuts as soon as they saw that low rider character, and from that moment on — because one thing about comedians, if you get a laugh, you never forget how you got it—history was made that night in Van Nuys.”

The pair would do a series of sequels, and the legend of two stoner friends became a regular movie plot line, but their own careers budded into various fields. Directing was one of Chong’s favorite gigs, he says. “My favorite was Cheech and Chong Up In Smoke, Nice Dreams and all of them. I directed them and helped direct Up In Smoke, and I loved being a director. That’s why Cheech and I broke up—he couldn’t stand the fact that I could tell him what to do and how to do it.”

Careers progress and change often, but in Hollywood that’s an essential strategy. Evolving from stand-up comedian, to recording artist, to actor, to director is no easy feat and often results in less work, but for Chong it has been onward and upward. Working the niche of cannabis and comedy reaches us on a human level, expressing what is for many an everyday social activity, no matter how illegal.

Chong goes on to discuss what life was like after landing a smash hit. “I wanted to do a movie, and Lou Adler got us a deal, and we did Up In Smoke, and the rest is history. But the way life changed is, I became a movie director, and once you’re a movie director it’s not like becoming God, but next to God, you know.”

Suddenly being in charge changes people, and it changes their art. Chong says this is why directing is his preference, “I’ve never recovered from it, the ego. That’s one of the reasons Cheech and I broke up, because I got this megalomania. That’s why I can understand Trump exactly, because I feel the same.”

Chong is not shy about his opinion of 45, which is amusing to say the least. After a bit of riotously funny Mueller Probe dot-connecting, Chong stresses that the other shoe will eventually drop. “They’ve got him right now under what I call ‘White House arrest.’”

It’s anxiety-reducing to hear these sentiments from one of the wisest cannabis thinkers, who also happens to have an intimate knowledge of fielding a federal investigation.

Once we got the necessary demons out by laughing at them, we looped back to comedy, asking Chong who his favorite colleagues are. “Right now, Ali Wong! She holds the mantle. She’s taken the Sam Kinison torch, and she’s running with it.”

Continuing, Chong mentions some of his other go-to’s. “But I love them all—Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler—they’re all great. I think the genius of them all was Steve Martin. He’s still, to me, a genius of all geniuses.”

Looking forward, cannabis comedy is going to take a personal bend as we start to critique and mine the ways it has helped us all get on all these years behind the scenes. Chong predicts the next wave of cannabis comedy will be peeking at the former naysayers and their misadventures:

“The future is always bright, because now there’s a wealth of material, like middle-aged women that use cannabis to help them sleep or to help them have sex with their husbands—there’s a lot of material there. Then there’s all the stories of cops who had an edible and had no idea what was happening to them, and thought they were dying.”

We can see the green light now: two corny cops getting into the biz via mishaps and hijinks, hopefully making amends to the people they hurt when they enforced unjust cannabis laws. Sounds like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Broad City mixed together, which would be incredible.

Tommy Chong has been dropping the truth his whole career. Expanding into advocacy may not have been intentional, but it’s been popular and powerful. Chipping away at federal cannabis prohibition needs all the help it can get.

Emerald contributor since March 2012

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